Luchino Visconti’s La caduta degli dei [Götterdämmerung] (The Damned, 1969) is such an outrageously excessive and daring film that one wonders, in retrospect, how Visconti got away with it. Even the film’s trailer is over the top, revelling in sadism and violence, suggesting an exploitation film rather than a serious historical account of Germany’s Nazi era. But Visconti was always an extravagant personality, a sort of doomed romantic who revelled in a lifestyle of lavish luxury, made no secret of his bisexuality and his many affairs, and demanded nothing less than total devotion to those who worked for him, both in front of and behind the camera. An intense person whose authority on the set was unquestioned, Visconti smoked 120 cigarettes a day, and even after a stroke in 1972, refused to give up the habit, eventually succumbing to a fatal stroke on 17 March 1976 at the age of 69.
One incident aptly sums up his fanatical devotion to every detail in his work: on the set of The Damned, Visconti had insisted that real marble be laid on the floor of the main set. But upon arrival to inspect the work, he tapped his cane on the floor lightly, saying only “I think not,” and returned to his palatial home, later sending down a messenger to tell the crew that the entire floor had to be torn up and replaced with parquet. In short, Visconti was something like Erich von Stroheim in his devotion to his work; everything had to be real, down to the last detail of the costumes for the extras, and the military hardware used in the film. Shot on a generous budget from 22 July – 14 October 1968 on location in Germany and Italy, the production gave Visconti free reign to do as he wished, and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
The Damned takes place in Germany in the early 1930s, as Hitler ascends to power, aided by the giant munitions concern owned by the powerful von Essenbeck family – a thinly veiled reference to the Krupp munitions dynasty. But the von Essenbecks aren’t supportive of the new regime, which gives the family’s factory manager, the ambitious Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), an opportunity to aid the Nazis by murdering the patriarch of the von Essenbeck clan, Baron Joachim Von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schönhals), and seize control of his business empire, with the help of young Martin von Essenbeck (Helmut Berger), the family rebel. Martin, first seen in the film cross-dressing as Marlene Dietrich at a grimly obligatory family gathering, subsequently transforms himself into a high ranking Nazi official who eventually does away with both Friedrich and his own mother, Baroness Sophie Von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin), who has aided Friedrich’s plan.
The justly infamous set-piece of film is Visconti’s brutally violent recreation of The Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934, when Hitler’s SS, at the Fuhrer’s personal direction, stormed a large gathering of Ernst Röhm’s SA members and massacred roughly 100 of Röhm’s followers at the Bad Wiessee hotel, where the group members had been engaged in a drunken homosexual orgy the night before. While Visconti made much in interviews of his desire to present The Damned as a cautionary tale, the graphic detail of this sequence – copious amounts of male nudity, rivers of blood, point blank machine gun executions of the victims, highlighted by camerawork that lingers over the bodies of the dead with lurid satisfaction – leaves nothing to the imagination.
In addition, there are incidents of incest, rape, and even paedophilia throughout the film, so it’s no surprise that the film was initially rated “X” and only got an “R” after numerous cuts which Visconti strongly resisted. But in the end, Warner Bros. forced Visconti to comply, only to ironically restore nearly all the trimmed footage for the 2004 DVD release long after Visconti’s death. In the music score for the film, too, Visconti was forced to compromise; his first choice was to use Wagner throughout the film, but Maurice Jarre was thought to be more commercial by the film’s producers, and so Jarre won out, much to Visconti’s chagrin.
The physical production of The Damned was so complicated that it required two directors of cinematography to complete the film, Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi, while the editing of the massive amount of footage compiled during shooting was entrusted to Ruggero Mastroianni, Marcello Mastroianni’s brother. The final running time of The Damned in the film’s initial premiere in Brussels on 2 October 1969 was a mammoth 156 minutes; after its American premiere on 18 December 1969 it was nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced, shared with Visconti’s co-authors, Nicola Badalucco and Enrico Medioli), but didn’t win.
Oddly enough, the scope and grandeur of this decadent spectacle reminds me of nothing so much as Andy Warhol’s 3 ½ hour split screen masterpiece The Chelsea Girls (1966), not only in its matter of fact presentation of a resolutely queer universe, but also in Visconti’s camerawork for the film, which is a marked departure from the more formal approach of his earlier films. Like Warhol, Visconti zooms in on the protagonists from a distance, sweeps across a room with nonchalant indifference to capture a gallery of conspirators, prowling the sets of The Damned with almost voyeuristic intensity. The zoom, in fact, is the key camera movement in the film, and the manner in which it tears through space and time to create a directorial signature that is as violent as the world it documents becomes almost another character in the film.
A film of aggressive, almost wearying beauty despite its depraved subject matter, The Damned is perhaps Visconti’s most famous film, along with Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, 1971), his greatest international success, and Visconti’s last major work. The chance to see The Damned in a theatrical presentation is not to be missed; I well remember the first time I saw the film in 1969, and was stunned by the sensuous power of Visconti’s vision. The small screen cannot contain The Damned; indeed, the film itself explodes in numerous directions at once, both in terms of plot and in imagistic execution, and demands a huge canvas for projection. Once seen, never forgotten, The Damned is a work of operatic splendour, and a one of a kind experience in the cinema.
La caduta degli dei [Götterdämmerung] (The Damned, 1969 Italy/Germany 156 minutes)
Prod Co: Italnoleggio Cinematografico, Praesidens, Pegaso Cinematografica, Eichberg-Film Prod: Attilio D’Onofrio, Ever Haggiag, Alfred Levy, Pietro Notarianni
Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti Phot:
Pasqualino De Santis, Armando Nannuzzi Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Prod Des: Vincenzo Del Prato Mus: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin, Charlotte Rampling, Helmut Griem, Umberto Orsini, René Koldehoff, Albrecht Schönhals